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Israel Hired PR Firm to Market Occupation to Black, Latino and LGBTQ Communities

Why did Israeli-funded PR firm Ceisler target crisis intervention and suicide hotline services for queer and transgender youth?

A screengrab from the Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy website. (Image: Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy)

The Israeli government recently hired a Philadelphia-based public relations firm to help promote its occupation-stained image among Latino, Black and LGBTQ communities in the United States — including by targeting organizations that provide crisis intervention services for at-risk queer and transgender youth.

In a deal with the Philadelphia-based Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, Ceisler Media and Issue Advocacy agreed to “Promote Israel’s Operation Protective Edge” to “African-American Groups,” “Promote Israel’s tolerance of LGBT rights” and “strengthen Israeli-Hispanic connections.”

The details of the arrangement can be seen in documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), available here and here. One particularly instructive form, signed in May 2015, outlines in surprising detail a multi-pronged and highly targeted campaign to influence grassroots organizations led by socially marginalized groups.

Larry Ceisler, the principal of the company, told AlterNet over email, “Our firm’s communications contract to work with Philadelphia’s Consulate of Israel was for one year and expired several months ago. It was not renewed.” However, he declined multiple requests for an interview, citing “constant client meetings.” Earlier this year, Israel announced that it plans to close its Philadelphia consulate, ostensibly to cut costs.

Nonetheless, the deal with the Israeli consulate, which also refused an interview for this story, offers a rare window into Israel’s public relations goals and tactics. And it has continued relevance for those people and institutions that come into contact with Ceisler, which boasts a long list of clients, from Walmart to the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.

The public relations campaign was initiated amid signs that socially marginalized groups in the United States are increasingly identifying with the plight of Palestinians. A Pew Research Poll conducted in the midst of Israel’s military assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014 found that Black and Latino Americans were far more likely to hold Israel responsible for the violence than their White counterparts. Meanwhile, growing numbers of LGBTQ people are speaking out against Israeli pink-washing, a propaganda tactic in which the state promotes itself as “gay friendly” to mask its human rights abuses.

The deal agreed to by Ceisler shows that the Israeli government is directly bankrolling campaigns that appear to be aimed at undercutting growing solidarity between Palestinians and marginalized groups in the United States.

Targeting Crisis Intervention Services for Queer and Transgender Youth

The deal attracted some press coverage last fall, with Haaretz reporter Uri Blau describing it as a pilot program that could catalyze the expanded outsourcing of Israeli PR to American companies. However, AlterNet is the first to investigate the agreement in detail and explore its ongoing political implications by reaching out to those communities targeted, including a broad array of LGBTQ organizations.

The FARA document provides a blueprint for targeting LGBTQ organizations that specifically serve young populations, including many who are vulnerable and at-risk.

“Organizations such as the Attic Youth Center (Philadelphia), Triad House (New Jersey) and the Trevor Project (national) are likely to be receptive,” the agreement notes.

The Attic Youth Center describes itself as “the only organization in Philadelphia exclusively serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth,” including people as young as 14 who are experiencing poverty and homelessness.

The Triad House is a “24-hour residential group home for youth ages 14-18 with emotional, medical and behavioral challenges.”

The Trevor Project provides “crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.”

“We have not been contacted and did not know about this,” Shawn Steiner of the Trevor Project told AlterNet. The other two organizations did not immediate respond to a request for an interview, and this writer found no evidence that they were willing participants in Israel’s public relations strategy. The deal is explicit about the goal to “Promote Israel’s tolerance of LGBT rights,” and this document shows that the consulate and Ceisler were prepared to exploit vulnerable youth to achieve this end.

“I’m horrified to learn about this intentional pink-washing in my community, and I oppose the occupation of Palestine,” MJ Kaufman, a member of Philadelphia’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, told AlterNet. “Israel actually is not a safe space for queer and trans people, both Jewish and Palestinian, and they shouldn’t be using queer and transgender people to cover up for their other human rights abuses. I don’t consent to that.”

Contrary to Israel’s assiduously cultivated image as a LGBTQ haven, a transgender 19-year-old woman Aiden Katri was recently incarcerated for her conscientious objection to the compulsory military draft. She was sent to a men’s prison, ever though she is a woman and requested to be assigned accordingly.

Promoting Apartheid to Black and Brown Organizations

The FARA document on Ceisler’s contract with Israel outlines the intentional targeting of Black organizations, including by promoting “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s 51-day military assault on the Gaza strip during the summer of 2014 that killed at least 2,145 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians and at least 578 of them children.

The deal instructed Ceisler to, “Attend and promote rallies in underserved communities that support peace and the value of human life.” It was not immediately clear whether this language referred to local, regional or nationwide organizations.

Sabrina Sample, a West Philadelphia activist with the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice and founder of the youth organization People’s Underground for Revolutionary Progress, told AlterNet, “This is very reminiscent of how, in social justice movements, especially those that involve African-Americans, a lot of counter-revolutionary entities want to infiltrate movements. It seems like this company is trying to do that by increasing its presence and forwarding its agenda. I would consider this firm to be a counter-agent in the movement.”

Referring specifically to the promotion of the Gaza War, she said, “it’s kind of bizarre to think there is any way to promote such an atrocity within our community by infiltrating African-American groups.”

The targeting of African-Americans by pro-Israel forces is not new. As journalist Seth Freed Wessler pointed out in 2012, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is the strongest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, has repeatedly attempted to recruit students at historically Black colleges to “say there’s no way Israel can be racist.” Related efforts are underway to target U.S.-based Indigenous communities.

Despite these efforts, a statement released in 2015 by 49 Black-led organizations declared, “The past year has been one of high-profile growth for Black-Palestinian solidarity. Out of the terror directed against us — from numerous attacks on Black life to Israel’s brutal war on Gaza and chokehold on the West Bank — strengthened resilience and joint-struggle have emerged between our movements.”

Meanwhile, Latino and immigrant groups were also targeted in the public relations plan. The document calls for the creation of “events with pro-immigration groups and organizations to discuss how their policies compare to Israel’s.” The document went on to name numerous Philadelphia-area groups, which can be viewed here.

Israel’s immigration policies are notoriously inhumane. In the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II, Israel has refused to take in a single asylum-seeker and is moving to build a wall along its Jordanian border to keep them out. African asylum-seekers in Israel were referred to by Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev as “a cancer” during a massive right-wing rally, sparking a race riot in which non-Jewish African businesses were vandalized by pro-government thugs. The racist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim incitement familiar to mainstream Israeli politics has migrated into in the American presidential election thanks primarily to the Republican frontrunners.

Instead of accounting for its own profound human rights violations, the Israeli government is simply attempting to make them more palatable to those U.S. demographics that are increasingly identifying with the plight of the oppressed in Israel.

Marketing to Marginalized Communities While Surveiling Their Organizing

Ceisler’s track record in the Philadelphia area is notable for its engagement with progressive groups. The firm has worked for social justice organizations, including the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, which is a large coalition that includes numerous racial and economic justice organizations fighting the dramatic de-funding of the city’s public education system.

Remarkably, Ceisler also represented Comcast during a period when the telecommunications giant was engaged in efforts to defeat low-income communities who mobilized to push Comcast to expand affordable internet access to residents in Comcast’s hometown. As a part of Comcast’s 15-year communications franchise, negotiated between Comcast, the mayor, and City Council, residents wanted (and won) a massive expansion of Comcast’s discount internet program to the many thousands of poor people who couldn’t access the internet at all, as well as a larger commitment from Comcast to Philadelphia’s woefully underfunded public schools.

“Ceisler’s staff followed us everywhere. For example, we held a rally at South Philadelphia high school last fall featuring everyday people about to testify at a public hearing on their difficulties accessing affordable Internet or getting a just education, and expressing anger at Comcast paying reduced property taxes to our schools and limiting eligibility for affordable internet in the poorest big city in America,” Hannah Sassaman, policy director for Media Mobilizing Project, told AlterNet. “When we held that rally, Ceisler sent their employees to monitor us. They would go up and approach reporters who had just listened to the voices of retired teachers, or low-income high school students of color, presumably to rebut them.”

AlterNet uncovered no evidence that racial and economic justice organizations were willing participants in Ceisler’s pro-war propaganda. But the firm’s role in the community raises questions about whether it has intentionally cultivated a progressive reputation, and whether its clients — from Comcast to the Israeli consulate — were hoping to capitalize on that image.

Fear Mongering Over Gaza and Iran

The FARA document on Ceisler’s contract with Israel identifies numerous other targets, including “Political leaders and public officials,” “Jewish agencies/synagogues/community groups,” “Cultural leaders” and “Business leaders and opinion-shapers.”

In addition, the document calls to “Connect with pro-environment/clean energy action groups and politicians to promote Israel’s wind, solar and natural gas industries.”

Disturbingly, the deal stipulates the building of a “database of people that sit on the boards of cultural organizations who also are involved in/connected to politics.”

It proposes “new roundtables/panels/events around hot-button Israeli issues such as Nuclear Iran and the program ‘What if Gaza was Near Your City?'” The reference to Iran shows that the activities of Ceisler were aligned with the far-right coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who aggressively attempted to block a nuclear deal between the Obama administration and Iran through pro-Israel groups inside the United States.

The details of the agreement provoked concern far beyond Philadelphia.

Rico Kleinstein Chenyek, doctoral student at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told AlterNet, “The Israeli state is constantly working to legitimize itself through minoritized social justice organizations and movements. It’s so telling to find this in a Public Relations firm communication, because PR is about top-down image, it’s about subduing controversy. PR is PR and is not about grassroots struggles for social justice.”

Dean Spade, professor at Seattle University School of Law and member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid in Seattle, agreed. “Israel is a colonial nation with widespread anti-Black racism, homophobia and transphobia (just like the U.S.),” Spade told AlterNet, “and these portrayals are just propaganda that co-opts anti-racist, feminist and queer politics for the purpose of maintaining a violent regime.”

AlterNet attempted numerous times to obtain information about how this contract was implemented in practice, precisely when Ceisler’s paid activities ceased, and whether the firm took on any tasks related to the presidential election cycle. These efforts included multiple attempts to obtain further comment from Mr. Ceisler, who is a donor to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Curiously, Mr. Ceisler did go on the record about the presidential election as recently as February for an article by columnist Stu Bykofsky, in which the writer accused presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders of hiding his Jewishness and “reluctantly” answering questions about his religion. In the article, Mr. Ceisler is quoted insinuating the Sanders doesn’t sufficiently present himself as Jewish. “I never thought of him as one,” he stated, “but I do know he’s from Brooklyn.”

These questionable comments echo a refrain from Israel supporters in which Sanders’ Jewish identity is put on trial because he is deemed not pro-Israel enough. Coming from Ceisler’s principal, the remarks suggest that the firm’s efforts to sow divisions among historically marginalized and oppressed groups could outlive its contract with the Israeli consulate.

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